Double Take: Advanced placement not always helpful

Katie: Advanced Placement (AP) exam scores will be released online two weeks from today at 4 a.m. CDT. I hope the College Board’s tech gurus are prepared for the 900,000-or-so hyperventilating teenagers flooding the website before sunrise.

Their anxiety is well grounded: AP scores can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection to their dream schools. At some universities, AP credits can save money — or at least time — in introductory courses.

The Advanced Placement program is supposed to afford qualified students the opportunity to move past introductory courses and on to more sophisticated material. But at many colleges, AP scores are now converted into actual college credit, even though the actual instruction received takes place in high school and does not necessarily correspond to the style or rigor of a particular college.

Many top-tier schools now question whether a passing grade on an AP test is equivalent to actually taking the course. Last year, Dartmouth stoked controversy when it announced that it would stop offering college credit starting in 2018 but would continue to allow advanced placement for students who took AP classes in high school.

This scores-to-credit system receives breathless praise from teachers and families, who recognize that the $85-plus spent on each exam may save hundreds or even thousands of dollars in college tuition.

I, however, hope more colleges consider Dartmouth’s example. By allowing a high school course to become a shortcut on the path to higher education, these schools are cheating students out of valuable college instruction that could have better prepared them for the future.

Contrary to their marketing claims, AP classes are more like college preparatory courses than college classes. High school teachers teach them to high school students. When taught by talented teachers, AP classes do a phenomenal job of preparing students for what lies ahead. Yet the exams are instead used to skip valuable parts of the college curriculum.

Dr. Wes: I’m with Katie. I started my freshman year with six hours of English Comp through a cooperative agreement in which a community college instructor came into my high school and taught two semesters. We received dual course credit, meaning the high school counted the hours toward graduation and the college put them on our transcript.

Many schools still follow this model. Others use the AP system Katie describes. But AP is not college and passing a test does not make it so. In fact, retired teacher and college professor John Tierney spent a great part of last year calling the AP exam system “a scam” that does not “hold a candle” to a real college course. His op-ed in the Oct. 13, 2012, Atlantic started a storm of discussion and garnered a dissenting response from The College Board.

After reading Tierney’s thoughts, I asked a number of college students I know who took AP classes in high school about how they felt about the AP situation. While all were happy to have the nearly free college credit, many came home feeling ill-prepared for the actual advanced placement classes, particularly those they took “way back” before senior year. Many had dropped back to the introductory classes in college after suffering a bad experience and low grade.

I suggest taking the AP courses and forgetting about the test. If you want college credit, sign up at one of the excellent junior colleges as a “non-degree seeking” student and opt out of an hour of high school per day.

Unfortunately, a few high schools discourage this by refusing dual course credit for required courses (e.g., math, English).

This makes little sense.

If a student takes Algebra II and gets a good grade at the university, shouldn’t she be allowed to count that for senior math? But if you push a little harder, schools will usually allow students to take college classes as electives, which is better than no high school credit at all.

Our love affair with AP classes is another product of a society that loves all-you-can-eat buffets and big-box discount stores — a well-hyped deal complete with LOW LOW prices.

Unfortunately, as with most things, it’s only a deal if the quality holds up. For many kids who think they’re testing out of their freshman year while still seniors in high school, the long-term benefit may not outweigh the risk of being ill-prepared for those placements they’re advanced into.

— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Learn about his new practice Family Psychological Services at Katie Guyot is a Free State High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.